Stage Door Review
Monty Python’s Spamalot
Thursday, June 1, 2023
music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle, book & Lyrics by Eric Idle, directed by Lezlie Wade
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
May 31-November 12, 2023
Lady of the Lake: “Life is really up to you”
If you are in the mood for an evening of deliriously silly fun, just head over to the Stratford Festival to see the all-stops-out production of Monty Python’s Spamalot. Original Python Eric Idle and composer John Du Prez based the musical on the well-known 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I first saw the musical in the version that toured to Toronto in 2006. Then I was most interested in how the musical deviated from the film. Now in 2023, after so many fantasy films and television series, I see the musical both as a send-up of the fantasy genre in general as well as a trenchant satire of the conventions of musical theatre. A lot of care has gone into the Stratford production to ensure that this will be the most hilarious evening you have in the theatre this summer.
As in the film, Spamalot follows King Arthur’s efforts first to gather knights for the for the Very, Very Round Table and then after direct intervention by God to find the Holy Grail, a cup, it seems, that She (He in the original) has somehow misplaced. Idle, author of the book and lyrics, has transferred whole swaths of dialogue directly from the screen to the stage, including the debate about swallows and coconuts, serfs working in a semi-autonomous collective, insults from the French Taunter, arguments with the Knights Who Say Ni and Herbert’s father’s vain attempts to give instructions to his son’s guards. As in the film the French pull in Sir Belvedere’s Trojan Rabbit, Arthur encounters the Black Knight who doesn’t give in even when he’s lost all his limbs and a harmless-looking Killer Rabbit chews off Sir Bors’s head.
There are some significant changes, however. Except for Galahad’s mother, played as in the film by a man, all the prime female roles have been cut. There is no witch burning scene, we never meet Prince Herbert’s intended bride and, most surprising of all, the whole sequence involving the desperate virgins of Castle Anthrax including the twins Zoot and Dingo has been cut. Instead, Idle has created a single major female character, referred to but not appearing in the film, the Lady of the Lake. She functions rather like Arthur’s good angel by getting him out of trouble when things look more hopeless than usual. In the musical which is definitely not intended for the politically correct brigade, this leaves the female chorus to function Benny Hill-style solely as titillating decoration.
Just as Monty Python and the Holy Grail made fun not only of Arthurian legend, but also of the conventions of filmmaking in general, so the musical based on it satirizes of the conventions of musicals. The film begins with several false starts including the opening credits and first scene of the 1961 film “Dentist on the Job”. In the musical after the Historian has given us background about 10th-century England, the curtain rises on a scene of peasants in colourful costumes doing the famous “Fisch Schlapping Dance” in their native Finland. Uh oh a mistake – the cast misheard “Finland” for “England” and have to start again.
Two songs by Neil Innes from the film make it into the score – “Knights of the Round Table” and “Brave Sir Robin” – along with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Eric Idle from Life of Brian (1979). Disappointingly, the famous “Spam Song” does not appear in the musical. The musical’s title derives instead from a line in “Knights of the Round Table”: “We dine well here in Camelot / We eat ham and jam and spam a lot” – not quite the same as “Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! / Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!”
John Du Prez and Eric Idle’s music parodies everything from Rossini to gospel, disco and rap. Andrew Lloyd Webber comes in for special ridicule in the self-referential duet “The Song That Goes Like This” for Galahad and the Lady of the Lake about sappy romantic show-stoppers that are reprised ad nauseam. Director Lezlie Wade even has the Lady and Galahad enter on a small boat piloted over the dry ice by the Phantom of the Opera himself. Meanwhile, the song’s endless key changes upwards eventually make it too high for the actors to sing.
In Act 2, the Lady of the Lake sings “The Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?)” about having been offstage so long she thinks the creators have forgotten about her character. Arthur sings “I’m All Alone” to his miffed servant Patsy, who wonders why his presence somehow doesn’t count. Earlier Patsy and Arthur get lost in a "dark and very expensive forest” as we hear both from them and the Historian. Besides this, references abound to other musicals. No points, though for guessing Fiddler on the Roof when the knights do the famous its Bottle Dance only with grails on their hats instead of bottles.
The director gets the balance exactly right between the storytelling in the musical and the characters’ constant questioning of every element of the story. When Arthur tells his knights about the quest given him from God to find the Holy Grail, one asks, “You mean that God the almighty and all-knowing has misplaced a cup?”
The cast has to be adept not only at singing and dancing but at the Pythons’ peculiar brand of absurdist comedy. To that end the actors have been especially well chosen. Jonathan Goad in the Graham Chapman role of King Arthur knows that to make the Pythons’ humour work his King Arthur has to take everything that happens absolutely seriously. Goad is great at maintaining Arthur’s complete obliviousness to the obvious. When he “rides” a horse, he gallops about on his feet with his servant Patsy clapping two coconut halves together. When a character points this out, Goad’s Arthur is puzzled at what the fellow could be referring to. How he rides is how he rides. What’s the problem?
Goad turns his experience with Shakespeare to good use in making Arthur’s speeches, no matter how nonsensical, sound wonderfully grandiloquent. The last musical I saw Goad in was The Music Man in 2008. Since then Goad’s voice has deepened and become fuller. Arthur’s Act 2 number “I’m All Alone”, may be meant as a joke, but Goad sings it as earnestly as anyone sings a serious song in a musical and does nothing to alter the fine quality of his singing.
Terry Gilliam’s role as Patsy in the film has been much expanded for the musical, and Eddie Glen is perfect for the part. Having played the unwilling sidekick to the villain in twenty Ross Petty pantos, Glen silently conveys all the hidden exasperation this Sancho Panza-like character has with his idealistic, semi-delusional master. We are fully on Patsy’s side when Arthur sings “I’m All Alone” with his faithful servant right beside him, and we’re glad when he finally protests his neglect. Patsy is given the best-known song of the show with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” which Glen delivers with a fine voice and perfect comic timing.
It was great to see Jennifer Rider-Shaw win entrance applause. The opening-night audience obviously remembered what a terrific performance she gave as Velma in Chicago last year and was keen to let her know it. Unlike Chicago, Spamalot showcases Rider-Shaw’s singing ability more than her dancing talent. Unlike King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake knows she is in a musical and is free to play directly to the audience. Therefore, in her first solo, “Find Your Grail”, she sings the song through straight and then proceeds to a number of stylistic variations on it, the catchiest being a gospel version that segues into a jazz number with a fantastic sequence of scat singing that I thought young people had forgotten.
Rider-Shaw sings the ironic Act 2 number “Whatever Happened to My Part?” as a heart-wrenching showstopper as far as the music is concerned, while fully aware that the words complain about the diva’s very lack of just such a number. Rider-Shaw showed she has a knack for comedy that matches her excellence in singing, and that unbeatable combination is on full display in this hilarious, beautifully sung number.
Among the other knights, Liam Tobin stand out in the Michael Palin role of the Marxist peasant Dennis who becomes the dashing Sir Galahad. Tobin transforms himself completely from the bent-over complaining peasant to the shining, upright, Galahad, abundantly conscious of his good looks and always ready to flick his hair back so everyone can see his face better. Tobin has a rich, resonant voice as anyone will know who saw him in at the Grand Theatre, London, in Elf in 2013 or Shrek in 2014. It’s rather too bad that he doesn’t have a solo number in Spamalot, but he does have a great duet with Rider-Shaw in "The Song That Goes Like This”. Tobin is also a fine actor and, unrecognizable as Prince Herbert’s father, he does the routine perfectly of the father’s growing frustration with giving orders his dim-witted guards.
American Aaron Krohn appears again at Stratford after having been absent since his Henry V in 2012. He plays the John Cleese role of the violent Sir Lancelot, who is ready to pitch a not-quite-dead peasant onto the wagon of plague victims. Krohn strangely is unable to give Lancelot much individuality. Even after the knight is outed as gay, Krohn plays the role as if Lancelot doesn’t really believe it. Nevertheless, Krohn is hilarious in his other Cleese roles as Taunting French Guard and Tim the Enchanter and the Michael Palin role of Leader of The Knights Who Say Ni. It’s very hard to say which of these is the funniest, but the Taunting French Guard is the most extended of the three and Krohn flawlessly gradates the Frenchman’s anger from irritation to rage.
Trevor Patt plays Eric Idle’s role of Sir Robin. His big number is the overlong “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”, which I have never thought fit in well in such a British show because it is so Americocentric. Much funnier is how Patt displays Robin’s growing displeasure when his minstrels’ ballad begins enumerating in too much detail how brave Robin will be under various types of torture.
Other amusing turns of note are Josh Doig as the super-effeminate Prince Herbert, Henry Firmston as the pedantic Historian and the obstinate Not Dead Fred and Aidan deSalaiz as the grumbling Mrs. Galahad.
Jesse Robb does not provide the kind of high-powered choreography we have become used to from Donna Feore, but it is perfectly suitable for the subject matter and the space. While he does lead us to two not quite precise kick-lines, I kept expecting he would give us a big tap number. He does gives a tap number but not one as virtuosic or extensive as one might have wished. One triumph is the duet he choreographs for McKinley Knuckle as a monk in full robes and Jason Sermonia as a nun in full habit with a large wimple. To see the two execute the acrobatic lefts and flips with such ease and in such clothing is a marvel.
David Boechler’s costume designs generally hew closely to Hazel Pethig’s original designs for the film with excursions to 1960s Las Vegas showgirl style for the Camelot Resort and Casino and modern conservatives’ nightmare BDSM wear for Lancelot’s coming-out party. While projections have become overused in theatre, Sean Nieuwenhuis’s work in Spamalot recalls the type of animation that original Python Terry Gilliam was so famous for that punctuated both the Pythons’ television shows and their films.
There are people who just don’t like British absurdist comedy in the style of Monty Python, and those people and the easily offended should probably steer clear of Spamalot. Everyone else, however, will find Spamalot to be a laugh-till-your-face-hurts musical comedy that they may well want to see more than once.
Photo: Aidan deSalaiz as Sir Bedevere, Liam Tobin as Galahad, Jonathan Goad as King Arthur, Eddie Glen as Patsy, Josh Doig as Minstrel and Aaron Krohn as Lancelot; Eddie Glen as Patsy; Jonathan Goad as King Arthur; Liam Tobin as Galahad and Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Lady of the Lake. © 2023 David Hou.
For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.